Know your limits: how to spot if a driver has a drink or drugs problem

Commercial Motor
September 18, 2017


On Saturday 26 August, eight people were killed when two HGVs and a minibus collided just past junction 14 of the M1 at Milton Keynes. Although the cause of the crash is still unknown, one of the most shocking incidents was that one of the HGV drivers involved, Ryszard Masierak, was over the legal drink-driving limit. 

Most people’s image of addiction – to alcohol or other substances – is of someone who is intoxicated, leading a chaotic lifestyle scraping together enough money for their next hit; but this is not always the case. There are also many functional addicts; people who juggle their problem to maintain what appears to be a normal life.

“As far as I was concerned, I was beyond the point where I was looking to get any kind of high – I was just trying to feel normal,” says Greg, a former functional addict. “If you’d asked me, I would have said I was unfit to drive without anything.”

But keeping himself in this state was not easy in an industry as unpredictable as transport; long hours and unexpected nights out took their toll. “I became incredibly manipulative,” he tells CM, “allowing my employers to think my partner had mental health issues to enable me to leave work early.” 

Concern about his partner was also the excuse he gave when he made mistakes. Eventually Greg realised he needed help before something went seriously wrong and took a break from driving to get it – but many may not be so lucky. As far as he knows, his employer never had any idea what was really going on. 

Spotting this kind of low-level misuse can be difficult, especially when the drug concerned is alcohol. Many drivers still consider having a few pints with a meal each night acceptable, which may seem fine until you consider they may only be taking nine hours’ rest, leaving little time for the alcohol to leave their systems – especially if they are taking that rest at home and need to drive themselves to and from work.

Independent alcohol education charity Drinkaware has researched morning after driving. “The amount of alcohol in your bloodstream depends on three things,” says Drinkaware chief medical adviser Dr Paul Wallace. “The amount you consume, over what period of time, and the speed at which your body gets rid of it.” 

The general rule of thumb is that the body processes one unit of alcohol an hour, but that can vary depending on your size, how much you have eaten, the state of your liver (which does the lion’s share of the work) and your metabolism. There is also nothing you can do to speed this process up. 

“Having a coffee or a cold shower won’t do anything to get rid of the alcohol,” says Wallace. “They may make you feel different, but they haven’t eliminated the alcohol.” 

Spotting the signs of addiction

Fellow organisation Alcohol Concern works with employers to create effective alcohol policies for the workplace. “Alcohol misuse is associated with a variety of negative outcomes,” it says, “including higher levels of unauthorised leave and increased incidence of accidents and arguments.” 

It recommends robust and regular training for line managers and HR staff as a matter of good practice, but cautions that staff members should “be reminded that their job is not to diagnose problems but to monitor factors that may indicate underlying issues, such as performance, work relationships and behaviour at work.” 

It recommends options for intervention, including company health campaigns; the use of informal screening tools such as questionnaires, coupled with five-minute advice sessions with trained practitioners; and web-based intervention programmes.

These are considered to be most effective within an established workplace alcohol policy; however, this is something few operators have. Add the urgent nature of dealing with such issues within a safety-critical occupation such as driving, and we are left wondering what the majority can and should do if they realise they have a problem. 

What to do if you suspect a driver has a drink or drugs problem

“Even if you haven’t got a policy in your employment contract on this, you are still entitled to take a driver to one side, tell him you suspect he has a problem and request he takes a test,” says Backhouse Jones director and solicitor Jonathon Backhouse. “If he refuses, you can’t let him drive again; that’s the starting point, so you’re going to have to suspend him – on pay.” 

The majority of modern employment contracts include a clause that enables an employer to direct an employee to see either their GP or a company doctor if there is a health concern, and obtain a certificate of fitness to work.

However, many haulage firms have simpler arrangements, in which case they may still request a driver sees a medical professional, but they cannot force the driver to comply. “If the driver continues to refuse – to talk about the situation, to take a test or to see a doctor – at that point you say you’re going to put him through disciplinary action,” Backhouse says, “because you have a valid concern and would be causing a serious offence if you let him drive and your concerns proved right.” 

This could lead to an employment dispute, but any tribunal is going to question the complainant as to why he did not agree to testing. “Operators should take legal advice in this situation,” Backhouse concludes, “but it’s better to lose a tribunal than let a driver go out when you suspect something is wrong and find he kills people [in a collision].”

By Lucy Radley

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Commercial Motor is the online presence for Commercial Motor magazine, the world’s oldest magazine dedicated to the commercial vehicle industry.

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